Written by Debra Barnes
It wasn’t a secret that my mother, Paulette, was a Holocaust survivor; it was just something we never spoke about at home. I hadn’t read any books on the subject, nor watched films or documentaries, or listened to other survivors tell their story. Friends invited me to join their book club; I said I would love to but “I DON’T read books on the Holocaust!”
An Important Reunion
Then, in 2006, the chance discovery of a photograph on the internet led to Mum being reunited with Denise, who had looked after her in the Jewish orphanage just outside Paris in 1944. Denise believed all the young children in her care had been sent to the gas chambers of Auschwitz. That was the case for Mum’s twin sister Annette, murdered at six years old, and their brother Nathan. aged 12. But Mum had survived.
The meeting with Denise made me realise there could be opportunities to find out what had happened to my mother, for she remembered almost nothing due to her young age during the war (she was born in 1938) and the trauma she suffered by losing her parents and siblings at Auschwitz. In 2010, Mum died after a short illness and it was only after that I started my research. I couldn’t have done it while she was alive. It was kinder leaving her not knowing how her family had died.
Researching Personal History
I made several trips to France: to Cannes to meet Denise, to Metz where Mum was born, and to Paris where she had been placed in the orphanage. I blogged about my discoveries and people contacted me to tell me their stories, many of which shed new light on what had happened to my mother. I met with local historians in France and the children of other survivors.
Eventually, I found out almost everything about Mum’s childhood except for the name and location of the convent which hid her for one year and saved her life. I call it the missing piece in the puzzle. My hopes were raised when I was told of a historian at Yad Vashem (National Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem) working on a study of hidden Jewish children in French convents. It turned out his main source of information was a 99-year-old French nun who could identify a convent by the habit the nuns wore. Mum always said the only thing she remembered was taking holy communion, because she got something nice to eat and drink; she never mentioned what the nuns wore, so my hopes of ever solving that mystery were dashed.
Starting To Write
Initially, my only intention was to write a short document for my daughters and cousins about the family story. There were three surviving children (my mother and two older brothers) but they were separated during the war and we didn’t know what had happened to each one and when. But, by the time I finished my research, I realised that I had to write a book about our incredible family story.
At first, I wasn’t sure how to write the story. I considered writing it as a factual account of my journey of discovery but resolved to fictionalise it and write it as a novel. Then I had to decide whether to write in first or third person and, after many false starts, chose to write it in the first person through the eyes of the three surviving children. Or, as my publisher put it, to write it in the most difficult way possible!
I had to put myself in the mindset of teenage boys (I have one sister, two daughters and two nieces, so that was quite challenging) plus the character inspired by my mother was too young to have a voice for much of the book, so how would I manage that obstacle? Judging by the reviews and messages I get from readers, I appear to have done a good job!
Since writing my book, and after many years of avoiding the topic of the Holocaust, I now work for a charity called The Association of Jewish Refugees (the national charity in the UK looking after the welfare of victims of Nazi persecution) where I run a project to help Holocaust survivors and refugees write their own life story books. You can see some of the books here: AJR My Story.
Over lockdown I started to volunteer for a charity called Generation 2 Generation through which I give talks to school children about my family’s story and talk to them about the dangers of racism and antisemitism.
The Young Survivors
I wrote The Young Survivors to honour the memory of the grandparents I never met, and my mother’s siblings murdered so young. And to acknowledge the pain my mother lived with her whole life but kept hidden so as not to burden her family. Also to shed light on the fate of the orphans left behind after their parents were deported, and how catching measles at the right time meant the difference between life and death – for my mother, at least. I am only sorry that Mum never got to see me fulfil my lifetime ambition of becoming a published author. I hope she would have been proud of me.
Debra Barnes Bio:
Debra is the debut author of The Young Survivors. The book was inspired by her mother, Paulette, who was born in France in 1938 and lost her parents and two siblings in the gas chambers of Auschwitz, including her twin sister at just six years old.
Debra said, “I wanted to write this story to shed light on the fate of Jews in France during the war, something which is not often considered. The book is dedicated to my mother who managed to live a full and happy life despite the horrors of the Holocaust. I often wondered how she managed to live with the burden of having survived when her twin sister perished, something she never spoke about.
“My extensive research included numerous trips to France where I visited my mother’s birthplace in Metz, the Jewish children’s homes and orphanages in Paris and Louveciennes, and the lady who looked after my mother in the orphanages and reunited with her sixty years later in Cannes. Writing this book has been a bittersweet experience for me.”
Debra joined The Association of Jewish Refugees (AJR) in 2017 to run their My Story project. This initiative produces individual life-story books for Holocaust survivors and refugees with the participation of volunteers as interviewers. Debra also works on a new Next Generations project for the AJR, helping to plan the future of the organisation. She is part of the Jewish Book Week Schools’ Programme and is a speaker for Generation2Generation.
More From Debra Barnes:
The Young Survivors is published by Duckworth Books and is available from all good bookshops.
Debra Barnes’ novel, The Young Survivors, is inspired by her mother’s story and is suitable for readers aged 12 years to adult. It’s published by Duckworth and available from all good bookshops.